Monday, December 16, 2013

Next in line Ungrateful Bitch Stories

I have my writing on the wall. Now I need to layer case file notes, pictures, letters- no small stack.  

I don’t want to get this out of me.  I want to walk away and ignore it some more.  If only I could throw it up.  Get it over and out like a 24 hour bug, oh yeah baby.  I’d do that.

I’m tired of the weight of it.  How many times to I have to read that the truth will set you free, and yet before the free is some serious horror, with attendant grief and sadness. M
y neighbor warned me not to go too far down the rabbit hole.  Too late it seems.  I grew up in the rabbit hole, so how could a walk down memory lane be any more disorienting?    

I’ll start with recent notes to myself:

“The truth makes me an ungrateful bitch.  Get over it.  
I have to tell the Next in line ungrateful bitch story.  And then  the next.  
What am I avoiding most?  Dive in.  
Ungrateful bitch stories.  
I whored myself for experience and education.  
This section spans the end of book one and the beginning of book two.”

Jesus, just get this out of me.  
Point a Browning Hi-Power at my intellectual capital and threaten something; something bad.  Like having to befriend my actual mother.  My dad still has me all wound up about that, and he’s dead.

I’m an ungrateful bitch.  I know I’m an grateful bitch too, but I have to get through the ungrateful parts first it seems.  It’s just so impolite to be so ungrateful and tell my truth.  It really is, and I’m getting over it, through it, under it, around it, above it and it’s a shit ton of work.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

book-writing learnings, for today

1. One chapter due at a time.

2. Life happens.  Reforecast, without losing the learnings.

3. I’ve been advised that if I ever want to publish outside of blog-land, I shouldn’t put more than fifty pages of material, --rough draft or not-- out there.  Only the first page and a one paragraph summary for the remaining chapters, which in the end, looks something like a book proposal.

4. Editing ain’t cheap, but its necessary.  I’ll have more time to work on that fifteen chapters from now, and eventually I’ll explore editing help by working on one chapter with two to three editors, to see how we work together, and to see how things turn out.  I’ve been quoted $50 a page- which looks like $500-$1,000 a chapter.  So conceivably, it could cost ten to twenty thousand for one book.

5.  Once I’ve completed the first draft twenty chapters, I’m interested in seeking input from some of the people in my stories, some of the helpers and guides in my life.  Sounds messy, but that might just be the point.  

6. In researching one of my grandmothers, I came across a book called:  "The Unknown Habsburgs" by David McIntosh. There are some serious royal watchers out there, which reminds me that I should keep a list of potential audiences for the book(s). So far, Foster care alumni, national child welfare community members, social workers, therapists, cult survivors, cult members, ’royal watchers’ round the globe, Texans, Austinites, Coloradans, Goldenites, Native peoples, and all the German, Greek, Spanish, Austrian relatives.   

7.  Its fine for friends to be distracted by comments on my blog, but not me.  Did I mention that friendships are priceless?

8.  As a writer, my version of linear takes lots of twists, turns and loop-de-loops.  

9.  Friendships are priceless.


My colleague late at night, a year or two older, was Bill Lyon, who covered Champaign High School sports and became a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. … Bill and I would labor deep into the night on Fridays, composing our portraits of the [football] games. I was a subscriber to the Great Lead Theory, which teaches that a story must have an opening paragraph so powerful as to leave few readers still standing. … Lyon watched as I ripped one sheet of copy paper after another out of my typewriter and finally gave me the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer: ‘One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damn thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?’ These rules saved me half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spend less time not writing.

Monday, April 15, 2013

First Draft of Chapter Five

Chapter Five:
Lee and Lisel, Apart

learning the ways
she wonders
what is it
that they
in the
the furious
the licking
spitting &
of flesh
heavy clank
of the armored
back &
why is the
man so
the woman’s

the eagle

-September 1, 1976

It’s a strange thing to read a poem about my mother watching me watch her have sex, and yet there it is, reaffirming memories of times at houses, like the one on Tower Road, facing  that little triangle park. I was just- turned four, she was almost thirty-four and her mother seventy-four.  Amazing how a mother’s poems and a twelve hundred page case file will do that-- both inform and reaffirm. My older half sister, the red-head, gave me a copy of a fifty-nine poem collection, penned then typed by my mother in the nineteen-seventies, bound in kelly green. Juliet sent the collection to her mother Assunta as a gift.  There are no titles or page numbers.  Some poems are dated, many are signed-- elisabeth, lisel, juliet maria, j e m a  h-b, juliet, Juliet, j.a., maria assunta,  j.

Juliet worked at the Humanities Research Center on the corner of 21st and Guadalupe. Her part of the University of Texas at Austin campus was surrounded by low brick walls and viney flower beds.  A bank of oaks shaded the walls I walked, staring at the squirrels and laughing with the grackles, who tilted their heads and spoke. She held my hand, my mother,  even if it was just the tippy-tip-tips, and helped me feel tall.   

She was part gypsy to me.  A painter, a student,  a teacher, a worker bee. An explorer of men.  She was heat and babyoil at Hippy Hollow.  She was magic and color at home, and all her places felt like home. Walls were her canvas and trees her haven. She had a bearded friend who built tree houses for a living and I would ascend--in wonder and mild fear-- every time, round and round the trunks of huge oaks, one winding platform leading to the next.  Once settled, the breeze and swaying movement were divine.  The dappled light and twerpy chirpy birds, my kind.
What helps me appreciate my mother is being a mother.  What helps me understand aspects of her marriages and eccentricities, are having a few of my own.   In reading Juliet’s following poem, as she sat and listened to her mother Assunta explain an upbringing, which spans World Wars I and II, the dimensions of my family puzzle expand.  

she gave me a small
packet of cigars,
to smoke on my way home,
she also enjoyed me
writing and smoking my pipe
while we sat in eula’s backyard

she told me of how her
mother, infanta blanca,
was a woman who did not love her
at all
i can feel she was glad that I now
understood how she didn’t know how
to love me, having me at forty
being a nun an archduchess
the woman with joseph my father

she remarked
one puff and it gives you thought
she played with her cigar and crocheted
a habit while talking
watching me watching me

-juliet 1976

In my grandmother Assunta’s lifetime, born in Vienna 1902, she was the pampered and distantly parented, eighth child of ten.  In her early teens, when World War I turned her imperial lifestyle upside down, Assunta, her parents and seven of her siblings fled Austria, in disguise, with jewels sewn into their clothing.  Two of her older brothers, Rainer and Leopold, chose to stay behind even if it meant dropping titles, and her Spanish mother, the Infanta Blanca, swore not to support any future Carlist efforts which allowed the family entry into Spain.  The Habsburgs settled into a sweat-equity kind of life, working and parsing out jewels to pay bills, and do their best to educate the remaining children.

At twenty-two, Assunta, fluent in at least German, Spanish and French, did her part and formally entered the convent of Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites in Tortosa, southwest of Barcelona-- a cloistered sect of nuns.  She prayed and served for twelve years, until the end of 1936 when the Spanish Revolution put a massive fork in the road of her divine path-- a forced absolution of her vows. Assunta was a drop in the flood of friars and nuns fleeing the Spanish monasteries, which led to Pope Pius XI releasing any and all with means or family from their vows.This was another once in a lifetime event, which left  Assunta, at thirty-four some version of an old-maid beauty and godly-divorcee, delivered to her mother who lived in the small  Italian vineyard where life, it seemed, had carried on.  According to Assunta, it was not a re-acquaintanceship either of them wanted, after all, her mother didn’t love her-- at all.  

“When can a person belong to herself?” I imagine her asking.  Apparently not in 1936, with the egregious name Habsburg. Two and a half years later, Assunta married  Dr. Joseph Hopfinger on the seventeenth of September 1939 in Ouchy, an area in south Lausanne.  Despite her hopes, she said decades later, the marriage was yet another curse of her name.  Dr. Hopfinger who would be Habsburg, was a thin-lipped aspiring Jewish-Polish doctor with a temper and a need to emigrate-- anyone and anywhere off continent would do.  My aunt Maria Theresa was born in Barcelona 1940, and my mother Juliet Elisabeth was born in New York City 1942.  

I have a black and white picture of the sisters on a pony, they’re five and seven.  My mother is in front, a dark, curly haired cherub, and their faces are a mix of concern and delight.  The saddled shetland munches from a feedbag, no weeds in sight on that  New York City street.  It’s all concrete, metal, pony and children.  I adore them.  I want to cuddle and love them, but they’re not those little girls anymore.  

Assunta found motherhood and mortal marriage difficult so she sought guidance at the Convent of the Sacred Heart.  No longer a nun, but connected to her sisters, her mothers, her people. The very people who eventually helped her escape an unbearable marriage. They found her a place, out of reach, yet within her means, so she could settle into life as a single, working mother.  Maria Theresa and Juliet Elisabeth were transplanted from living a rather posh Manhattan life, daughter of a doctor and reluctant socialite, to San Antonio, Texas and St. Teresa’s Academy, a catholic boarding school for girls. A boarding school that understood Assunta’s situation, and would let Maria Theresa and Juliet Elisabeth work off part of their room and board, through chores.  Never a shortage of chores, it seemed, especially for daughters of a defrocked and divorcing nun. Once a nun, always a nun? Every one nun, nun.
My mother, at twenty-two in 1965 had two curly red-heads, my older half brother and sister, and realized that the life of a rancher’s house-wife wasn’t going to work.  Nothing about single parenting, working at Frost bank and going to SAC at night meant footloose and fancy free, which was part of what made the offer of her own place in New York City so enticing. Her father, Joseph Hopfinger, and Helen, her step-mother, offered to set her up in New York, help with an apartment, a phone, and clothes for the kids.  By September 1967 my mother settled into life as Mrs. E. S. Richardson at 160 E. 27th St., Apt 5A, New York, NY 10016. Just not for long.

“I ended up loving Helen, my stepmother; she met me at the airport in New York and said:
“Oh, thank god your children aren’t ugly”.
I thought, Oh, this is going to be fun. I did forget to say about dad, a week before I was going to marry Glenn, he found out somehow and called me. He said “Why don’t you skip the wedding and come go to college in New York?”
“Oh well great, a week before I was going to marry and I didn’t even know him. I wasn’t as crazy like I am now  about reading and knowing everything. Looking back I think, why didn’t I jump? I had my whole life ahead of me.  No kids, no marriage. My whole life would have different. I may never have gotten into painting, I love painting.
I got a good job though, the first month I was in New York at The Academic Press.  They
made textbooks for college and it was a great, great place to work.  I was an executive secretary in the advertising department.  I loved it.  I loved it there, but dad drove me crazy and Helen.My dad didn’t treat Helen right when I was there, or didn’t treat Helen right once I got there. It was like ‘Helen you’re second, Juliet you’re first.’ But I wasn’t Juliet then. I was Elisabeth. Elizabeth was first.
He said one weekend we could go to Europe, you and me, and Helen could stay here and take care of the kids. I thought, well there goes his marriage.
I was smart enough to realize that wasn’t a good idea, and I thought it better that I go back to Texas.  It was already 1968 by then.  I went back to San Antonio and Glenn asked me to marry him-- I said no.  I lived with him for a little while in an apartment he rented, for us. He proposed again, and so I moved again.”
(personal communication with Juliet, April, 2011 Austin, Texas)

My mother met my father, Lee through her older sister Maria Theresa, who went by Terry at the time. Terry, who was working through her own share of divorce and single motherhood,  introduced Juliet to one her boyfriend rejects, who was stationed at Lackland Air Force base.
“I want you to meet a guy I’m dating, he’s not my type” Terry said, “he’s your type.” And I married that one too. He was in the service.  He never was sent to Vietnam, because he knew someone, but  it kept him at a desk job that he hated.  Lee was quite handsome, and I never kissed, kissed, kissed with my first husband. He was nice still then, never hit me then, was never bossy, that was after we were married.  I was going to school, SAC, living on a tight budget, child support, north part of SA, But anyway soon as he got out of the service, he said, we’re leaving. What? To get away from relatives, my relatives. We sort of picked Oregon together-- they had to have pre-med.  And off we went in a little VW; what fits goes, what doesn’t, doesn’t.” At least Timmy and Tracy fit.  
(personal communication with Juliet, April 2011, Austin, Texas)

My mother tells me that when she learned of the big bang theory, she couldn’t sleep for five days.  She also said that Lee was her first real love, for good or for bad  and there wasn’t anything clean about the ending.  

Case File Quote:

1) Child was born from a fourth pregnancy.
2) Child’s mother miscarried approximately 1 to 2 years prior to Leigh’s birth. Allegedly this miscarriage occurred subsequent to a blow to the mother’s stomach by Mr. Lee Barr.
3) The first two births were normal deliveries.
4)The mother was 30 years of age at Leigh’s birth.
5) Mother claims no major illnesses during pregnancy except some vomiting and diarrhea.
6) Mother denies use of drugs during pregnancy for recreating or prescribed use except possibly something for the vomiting.
7) Mother reports the child developed normally.
8) Mother reports no problem with toilet training.
9) Child has not been hospitalized for major illnesses.

My mother filed for divorce in Travis County, Texas on August 15, at 11:22am in 1974.  I have a copy of her petition.  

The Parties were married on or about June 1, 1969.  On or about July 15, 1974 they separated and ceased to live together as husband and wife.  

There are no court ordered conservatorships, guardianships, or other court-ordered relationships affecting the children in this suit.  The child(ren) now reside with Petitioner.

Name: Leigh Stephanie Assunta Barr. Sex: Female. Birthplace: Eugene, Oregon
Present Residence: 502 W35th #101 Austin, Texas

No community property has been accumulated during this marriage other than personal effects.  Petitioner requests that these be awarded to the person having possession.  

Petitioner presents to the Court that more than one-half of all expenses are borne by Petitioner and asks that federal income tax exemptions for the parties’ children should be granted to petitioner.  

Petitioner requests a change of name to Elisabeth Stephanie Richardson Barr.  

Signed: Elisabeth S. Barr

Of my mother’s third marriage, to Dallas Sylvester Langford IV, Ph.D. I don’t remember him in particular, which I take to mean he didn’t do anything to scare me. Was he a gentle soul? Maybe.  What I do remember is concentrating on an ad for Avon products, scrounging for days and filling up a clear bag with coins. I left the coins and a carefully cut-out order form hanging from the mailbox. I waited for the mailman with a yearning --so many  afternoons on the front porch-- or peering through the screen door out to the front porch, or waiting around the edge of the yard, staring over the edge of the front porch-- I wanted my very own lipstick and compact with a fierce and focused determination.

In a letter to her mother, my mother recounts her marriage:

“Sunday 12-15-74
Hi Mom, Merry Christmas!
My new address is:
208 N. Blair
Round Rock, TX 78664
Kept my name- oh yes! I asked the kids to call you and tell you Dallas and I got married- still can’t believe it.  I left San Antonio on a Friday- Dallas proposed Sunday night- I accepted and we got married the following Tuesday November 26th- I certainly thank you for driving over to the kids to visit with me.  I love you, and am feeling happy.  
Love Lisil”

Another short piece from the collection:

each morning he would
go under the covers lick
me wet flip me over come
go take a hot bath suds up his face and hair
put in his mouth an egg
straighten his tie go off to teach
come home at four
get stoned and then we’d both come
cup your face in your hands
like a child used to

Juliet said Dallas had cold feet, with so many kids around, but decided to dive in. A nice schedule they seemed to have, judging from the poem above, but then Dallas wanted to have one of his own.  Then it went something like this: One of his own? Does every man want to have one of his own? Not this time, not again... and another marriage dissolved. Blink. A few conjugal visits with Lee.  Blink.  
If place makes a person, Hippy Hollow and Chillicothe, Texas might best begin to describe the dichotomy of my early childhood.  It was the mid-seventies, and I was insistently barefoot and following my mom on a pebbly-dirt path, noting the brief shade of scrubby trees that opened up to flat stretches of rock. We picked our way past a lounging walrus-man, a fist-full of newspaper shielding his eyes from the sun, his penis mercifully buried between belly and fur, then a woman leaning back on her elbows, with glaring-white triangular patches centered around the darkness of her nipples.

Hippy Hollow smelled like baby oil and crackled with heat and conversation. Occasional shrieks, splashes and laughter pierced the lapping rhythm of the water. I remember thinking that Hippy Hollow wasn't really a place for kids. Not so much because of the nakedness spread out and sunning everywhere or my developing Granny-induced aversion to resting my eyes on private parts, but because there was no beach. Adults could stand, one ledge down, chest high in the water. But chest-high, even for my not quite five foot tall mom, was too high for me. Given the choice of frying on the rocks or freezing in the water and with much cajoling and promises of safety, I jumped in.

Welfare smelled like baby oil, but tasted like powdered milk.  A foul packaged thinness, a commodity beverage with one relevant instruction-- add water. They should have said, add milk.   I must have been picky, having tasted the opulence of fresh whole milk, whenever I visited Granny and Grandpa, the ones who were moving from Florence to Chillicothe, Texas.  Milk seemed to begin and end meals of orange juice, bacon, anyway-I-wanted-them eggs, and hot toast with jelly islands floating in butter lakes.  I would eat-drain the toast down to the dipping-dimensions of the milk glass. Nothing else tastes quite like that first milky crunch.  

Once we visited a friend of my mother’s who lived in a commune.   We could see her on the second floor of the soon-to-be main house.  We climbed a wide half flight of stairs, the sound of hammers pounding, dusty men walking with buckets and lumber.  We turned and climbed another half flight to find a very pregnant woman sitting cross legged, and deep-breathing in her space.  The space of a few layered blankets and pillows spread out.  The space of her breath, as she willed the busy-ness away, and her baby out.  
I smiled and crinkled my eyes at the other little person offered for the task, and his Mamma too. “Pretend like you’re a baby” said Juliet, and he will too, she said pointing at the boy. You’ll both be babies and your job is to nurse. To suck. On her nipples. That’s all.  If you both do it, at the same time, it will help the baby come out.    We both nodded such agreeable children, and moved to either side.  We didn’t get the hang of it at first, and giggled.  We looked into each other’s eyes, tilting heads from side to side, making funny faces, but soon settled into the business at hand, or rather, in mouth.   

The house on Tower Road, across from the park, had a green bamboo backyard encircled in part by Johnson Creek, which made it gurgly and separate from the rest of the world.  Johnson Creek also ran through the park and held my favorite source of clay.  I found and mined a vein on the far-side bank and spent hours digging and shaping a collection of works.

My mother claims that I would wear my midnight-blue velvet dress with the white eyelet pinafore-- into the creek, and that I was a little beast who wouldn’t fall asleep until at least eleven at night.  I believe every word.  Things that mattered I never wanted out of my site. That and the roaches.  I didn’t notice them during the day, but at night they would develop a boldness I didn’t appreciate.  They would want to see what lovely crumbs might lie in my bed.  What loose bit of carob-chip might have escaped my notice.  I hated it.  I know hate is a strong word, but those roaches were longer than my fingers, and I didn’t want them in my ears, or anywhere else. My nights were clickysticky,  fluttery, scrapey and most of all, hot.  

After one such night, I remember standing on  the living room couch, facing the park with a tennis racket in my hand.  I preferred real-pretend guitars, to the plain-old air variety.  But the tennis racket was no longer a guitar, it was a weapon.  I was standing on the couch, screaming at my mother. Craving my mother. Raving at her to choose me, like I had chosen her. I screamed and watched my mother disappear into her back room, again. “I'm a teacher”, she would sometimes say.  “I teach people how to make love.”  
“Mother reported that child had vivid dreams.  One that sticks in her mind: Child, mother and father are in a crowd.  Child is with mother.  Father is ahead of them in a crowd. Child and mother can barely see him.  Child reports that father has a bag of candy.  Father is half-looking back at them and holding tight to the candy.  Mother and child are trying to get to father but cannot as feet and legs are undifferentiated and bloody.”
-Case File Quote
I learned early on that my father was a windbag, which is the compound word my father’s step-mother, Granny, used when she was avoiding the phrase full of shit.  Just like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is genius, and Granny did not consider my parents geniuses in the parenting department, or really in any department for that matter.

Granny was a teacher, through and through, and in the forty-five minute drive between Austin and Florence that became the eight to nine hour drive between Austin and Chillicothe, I learned how to count to ten in Spanish. I learned about Disco Duck and John Denver, with his rocky mountain high. I learned that the smell of skunk meant immediate teasing that somebody had cut the cheese, and we had to find out who.  I learned to see noses and horses and make stories out of the clouds.  Stories that drifted together, and inevitably drifted apart.

Friday, March 15, 2013

First Draft of Fourth Chapter

Chapter Four:
Lee and Lisel, Together

“As an adult it is alleged Mr. Barr was trying to hurt his father by telling him things like:
1.) I am heavy into drugs.
2.) My wife and I were taking LSD to see if we could produce a normal child.
3.) When Lee Stephanie was in the grandparent’s care, Mr. Barr would take her away when he would notice that they were enjoying her company.”
-Case File Quotes (2/12/1982)

I consider myself a Texan, because my memories begin there, but I was born in Eugene, Oregon at the Sacred Heart Central Hospital in July of 1972. Induced, I’m told, after a full days work. My father wasn’t always a small-time Christian cult leader and my mother wasn’t always an artist who lived in a tree. When I was born my father was a plain-old, adulterous bastard who could kiss forever, “fuck like nothing else,” and who with help from the G. I. bill, was studying a combination of pre-med and psychology at the University of Oregon-Eugene. My mother commuted to Springfield to work as an executive assistant and the two red-headed, step-children, technically Irish twins because they were born eleven months apart, were from her first marriage, at eighteen. My father was her second marriage. Timmy and Tracy, my half brother and sister, lived with Lee and Lisel, a diminutive of Elisabeth, until right before my birth, when Lee threatened to leave my very pregnant mother if she didn’t send her red-curly-heads back to their father who was still living in San Antonio Texas.

I have two pictures from the day of their wedding in Oregon on June 1, 1969. Lee is dressed in a navy suit, white shirt, tie and tie pin.  His dark hair is cropped short and parted on the left. Black plastic framed glasses and a wide white grin are plastered across his face.  My mother’s hair is equally dark brown, but wavy, all one length just below and tucked behind her ears.  She’s wearing a sleek, sleeveless, high-necked, burgundy-brown dress.  The outdoor shot includes my siblings standing in front of my parents, tissues in hand of my mother that is holding Tracy close. Her face is beaming and they look like a happy family unit.

Life at 1678-A Hayes Street went pretty well, with ski trips and skis for Timmy and Tracy at Christmas, until Lee decided they should expand the family during his junior year. After a miscarriage, my mother gained fifty pounds with me, “due to stress, going to work every day and living with a nut.”  A cheating nut no less.  She was fired though, after my birth and during Lee’s senior year. My mother said she didn’t know how repressed women were in Texas, until she moved to Oregon, which is where she was introduced to the word fuck.  She was fired due to that very word. The ten-person clothing company she worked for had accounts all over the world, a world which did not appreciate the word fuck coming out of an assistant’s mouth- no matter how seldom.  

They called it quits for the first of many times.  My father, Lee flew back to Austin and my mother to San Antonio, with me.  The first word out of my mouth was the word fuck.  Instead of wow, I said said fuck, all the way back to San Antonio.  “Not long after, Lee asked me to come to Austin and live with him.  We were still married and by then I missed him. And you, little girl, you were happy living with your daddy.  He had no car, no job.”

Case File Quotes
“Mr. Barr stated that he and his wife married when he was living in the northwest and attending the University of Oregon. They had the child after two and a half years of marriage.  He stated that the child was “always strong-willed” and it wasn’t until she was 18 months old that he realized she cried and had tantrums when she didn’t get what she wanted.  He stated that the only way to stop her tantruming behavior was to put her in her crib, shut the door and let her cry herself to sleep, or to give her what she needed.  He preferred the former method. He stated that he and his wife had great difficulty in their relationship and had several separations before they were divorced.  They came back to Austin and finally divorced.

The child was given to the mother and remained with her until age 4.  The father states that the mother had multiple boyfriends and that the child slept on the same bed while the mother had sexual intercourse with these several boyfriends.  He then described the child’s natural mother as being “crazy” and described her fascination with witchcraft.  He stated that she tried to drill a hole in the front of her head at one time and that she also put a very large bell on her right ear and ripped her earlobe.  He stated that he thought she was doing “drugs” and that these were causing her to become crazy.”
My earliest memory lives in bright white kitchen. Frozen there by a scene so loud that it was silent. No need for words when you see the sharp, sweeping movement of her body, as it leaves his hands, flying-slamming-stilling down the wall.  She had dark hair. They both had dark hair.  

In that bright kitchen I had one thought that looped in a tight circle, if I have to choose, I choose her. If I have to choose, I choose her. That little thought was it, the seed of my undoing. I was barely at my beginning and I was already at my undoing, according to my father.

I have an aunt who tells of a time that she and her husband lived in the same apartment complex with Lee, Lisel and me.  She observed that my parent’s form of childcare consisted of a crib and a locked front door.  My aunt was caring for a cousin of mine, just a few months older.  She didn’t know what to do, said my aunt.  She could hear me crying, crying and crying.
In their time together Lee and Lisel wielded knives, fists, words, lovers and objects.  They erupted together and apart, in conversation and in bed.  My father planted tomatoes and my mother ripped them out, preferably when heavy with fruit.  I watched her once, through the sprinkler-rainbows. The sun that made misty rainbows for me glinted off the butcher knife in her hands. Her rhythmic yanking and hacking didn’t alarm me, it was just something she did.  Something they both did to clothing, plants, the garden.  From what I remember, we were all wild things.  

Lee and Lisel squatted in houses under construction and renovation.  Indoor camping they must have joked. Maybe the houses were job sites, though I seldom remember my father working. I did think of him as a carpenter, at least a few times.  Like that time he was up on a roof, with a hammer, as we drove by.

In this house, with carpet nails to cross at every threshold, I remember needing a band aid, after landing on a stretch with my bare toes.  I crouched with my mother, one leg out, slowly shredding a paper wrapper, searching for the band aid that my mother had already used to encircle one of my toes. Strip by strip I ripped it apart, and still nothing was there.

I remember shoe-tying lessons at the carpet-nails house, because my parents thought shoes were preferable to blood, crying and bandages. But I didn't like complicated tie-shoes and there was a pomegranate tree at the top of the driveway that I wanted to visit. I stood in the front doorway, barefoot still, staring up the steep driveway at that tree, on the right. The red fruit hanging down looked tantalizingly in reach from this perspective, but on closer inspection, still out of reach, even for a wild child.  After the pomegranate tree, I wandered down the street into other yards, and on this day I was a dog.  Sniffing, noticing, snuffing and woofing, walking on all fours, kind of like Disney’s version of Mowgli when he’s attempting to be an elephant, but I’m a dog, a dog with a need to poop.  I chose a spot between a parked car and the trunk of a tree, a few yards down. I pooped, not at the base of the tree, but somehow right between the two. I wonder if the act went unnoticed, or if some family watched with a mixture of horror and amusement at a little girl pooping in their yard.  It was a nice green yard, thick and bouncy. I don't recall wiping and dogs don't wipe anyway, they wander.  No wiping, just wandering.

If there is one thing I’ll agree with my father on, it’s that I’ve been strong-willed from the start.  In the carpet-nails house, my parents slept in separate rooms, my father on a sleeping bag laid out on the floor, he had one half and I had the other.  My mother, in her room, would eat slices of the most heavenly chocolate cake, which I swear is the Pepperidge Farm dark chocolate cake, still available, in your neighborhood grocery freezer section.  The layers of icing, cake, icing, cake, icing cake.  She would give me bites and invite me to read with her.  To lie down next to her and read.  

One morning I woke in a very cold, wet spot on my side of things and heard the shower going.  I’d peed.  I scuttled over to my father’s side of the unzipped bag, crab-style and commenced to pee again, the hot urine arcing it’s way out of my body, thoroughly soaking his side.  I didn’t notice the shower stilling in the bathroom next door, too entranced with mine. And he caught me, mid-stream, looking like a little crab on a beach, pissing on her father’s side of the bag, because her side was wet too. It was out of balance, like too many things. After hearing the sound of him, seeing his face at the door, toweling his hair dry, I struggled to get the rest of it out.  An innocent or insolent look on my face, I imagine, either way not working for him.   

Case File Quote: 2-11-82
“Juliet Habsburg-Bourbon provided additional social history info.  She stated that during marriage, she and Lee Barr agreed to have an “open marriage”.  She stated that Mr. Barr slept with another woman (woman was landlady of last apartment where they lived together).  Ms. Habsburg-Bourbon also took part in this agreement as Mr. Barr was.  She did not elaborate on this.  Mr. Barr did punch Ms. Habsburg-Bourbon in the stomach during her pregnancy.  He hit the side of her stomach.  During his enlistment in the Air Force Lee Barr drank a lot.  The military made him ‘nervous’. He was not infantry because he was a friend of, or had a friend that knew Henry B. Gonzalez, that arranged for him not to go to fight during the Vietnam War.”

Case File Quotes:

“The child’s third to fourth years were spent with her natural mother.  During these four years the child lived in 5-10 different residences of various conditions, i.e. middle-class to poverty (roach and rat ridden homes). The child spent much of this time away from her parents in nursery schools,  Montessori schools, grandparents and other caretakers.  Allegedly during this time the child witnessed violent acts between her parents, e.g. knife chasing.”

Case File Quotes:
“I asked Mr. Barr about the family history of the mother and he stated that her mother was living in San Antonio with 8 dogs and in his opinion she was also crazy.  He stated that his first wife’s father was an internist in New York who many times would abuse his first wife.  He stated that even when she was an adult he would spank her across his knee when she was nude.  He did not elaborate on this.

We visited my grandmother Assunta a few times, she lived due south of San Antonio, Texas on a large plot of land with scrubby trees, grasses and a large gaggle of geese.  She greeted me and my mom at the side door with a pack of yapping, nipping dogs at her ankles. She was dressed in a red and grey-striped robe and all-weather boots.  Her steely, grey-white hair was long and somehow braid-wrapped around her head.  

The humid, Texas summer air pushed me forward, but the stench of the house pushed right back. I couldn't move until my eyes could see inside and my nose agreed to move further. The floor was covered in newspaper. The newspaper was covered in dried wet spots and squished, scattered piles of poop, and more layers of newspaper. With a nudge from my mother, I took a few careful steps into the hallway and stopped. I had to be still in order to look anywhere but down. Assunta's bedroom was on the right, with a twin sized bed tucked into the corner also on the right; a TV flickered at the far end of the room and fresh newspaper lined part of the floor around her bed. On the left side of the hallway Assunta began pushing a heavy wooden table blocking a pair of glass-paned French doors. In this room, the only room with no dogs, she had newspaper configured in a different way... piles of it everywhere. Piles taller than me, two year old child. There was a couch, a desk and some other furniture, everything under a layer of papers and dust.

All the heat, dust and concentrating made me thirsty; I asked for a drink.  I played a very focused and weird game of hopscotch behind my grandmother, down the dark hallway and into the kitchen. Except for a few functional carved out spaces, every surface in the kitchen was covered in dishes. Comical, Dr. Seuss piles of dishes; they crawled up the walls and leaned on each other for support. It looked as though my grandmother kept buying sets of dishes, using them and then stacking up the dirties for someone else to clean.

My mother swears there was a specific place for the dogs to shit, but I swear there was just one place they couldn’t, which was the guest space, behind the French doors. Regardless, according to my family tree, I should not be alive - my grandmother, before she was a mother, was a nun.

I should mention that I have the right to call myself the Princess of Hungary or the Archduchess of Austria. My favorite is the general title of Royal Highness. My grandmother, Assunta, in addition to being a mother and former nun is also an Archduchess with eleven given names: Assunta Alice Ferdinandine Blanca Leopoldina Margaretha Beatrix Josepha Raphaela Michaela and Philomena. Her gravestone reads  Assunta Habsburg-Lothringen.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

First Draft of Third Chapter

The only thing between me and my shitty first draft? Perfectionism.  That and my twelve year old dog, who needs to go out, this very instant.

3. Silver Creek Drive, After Evil

I kissed the ground
I coughed it up
my lemon skin
my broken jar
I pushed her down on my way up
I saw the top
of her head
I was tired
so I went to bed
I pushed her down on my way up
now the bones
and leaves are dry
I sleep in the corners
of her eyes
-The Gourds

There was a time of freedom at this house, before I was again entirely confined.  I rode my banana seat bike all around the neighborhood, and in  1981, Silver Creek Drive seemed to be a thoroughfare between developments in different stages of completion.  How many model homes and building sites did I explore with a friend in the late afternoons and weekends?  It seemed countless.  I don’t recall doing damage in the model homes, so much as having found a life-sized way to play house.  It was imperative that we didn’t move things like the luxurious black satin comforters, with no sheets underneath, or the black and red ‘oriental’ place-settings on the shiny lacquer dining room table. A fanned black swan napkin graced each of the four spots.  

The food at home on Silver Creek Drive was only interesting if I stole it, or made it myself. Sugar was another thing banned from my diet and it became a hunger-dare, on weekend mornings, to sneak out my second floor bedroom, peer over the living room from every angle and assess the state of my parent’s bedroom door.  Open meant a stiff and quiet retreat. Closed meant stealth mode downstairs, to the left through Norma’s office and into the kitchen. Only once in this house did I score one of the sweet but tart and flaky cream cheese danishes that my father made.  He didn’t make them all the time, and I had only so much daring. Trying not to get caught meant getting caught once in awhile and having my door yanked open and a handful of danish butter cookies exploding down the wall, or worse.  Good thing I wasn’t picky about the state of the cookies before they melted in my mouth.  

My bedroom, at this third place, and in the third year we lived together, was again catty-corner from Shay’s room.  I had two desks, an old roll-top with a delightful amount of  slots and drawers and the baby blue school desk that matched the toy box, again sitting under the window. Miniature pink rosebuds ensconced in wisps of pale green were evenly splayed across the white background of the cushion Norma made for the lid and seat of my toy box. She even remembered the detail of white cotton eyelet lace, which reminded me of a white eyelet pinafore that Granny made for me years before.  

If I ate dinner, it was at the baby-blue desk.  One of them would bring a plate up and either hand it to me or set it on the desk. I’d peel back the foil and survey the tease.  A grilled burger, slathered in mustard which I hated.  String beans again, which made me gag.  I loved string-less green beans, but these had strings coarse as horse hair that eventually wadded wet-nest-like in my cheek.  I would chew and chew, trying to break it down until the green edible parts were long gone.  Swallowing had failed too many times for me to bother ever again, and so I would spit these out.  Because we had a clean plate club rule, I was not allowed to leave anything on my plate, so  I’d work my way around the things I didn’t like and bundle the uneaten food in the foil, baked potato style. Why it didn’t occur to me that I should flush these things down the toilet bit by bit, I don’t know. Instead I would hide them away in the closet, which eventually developed an odor that I couldn’t quite ignore. There was no starvation, in the literal sense, but there was in the emotional sense.  Eating food made with love and food made with anger nourishes differently. Granny, for example, who is my father’s step-mother, fed me grape-nuts with fresh sliced strawberries, sugar and whole milk.  She made homemade applesauce and peach pie.  If a jar of her jelly didn’t set right, it became the most intensely sweet and thick blackberry syrup you can imagine.

One night, as on many nights, my father opened my bedroom door and stood there, knob gripped in his right hand. My nine year old body froze, even if I wanted it to melt instead, down into my mattress leaving nothing but a steaming puddle of me. Light from the hallway flooded in, outlining his tall frame, blinding me.

In a low, measured tone he said, “My head hurts. You're causing it. If you don't stop it, I'll make you hurt worse. You have fifteen minutes. Make it better, or I'll be back”. He turned around, doorknob still in hand and shut the door behind him. Staring straight up, blind, but in darkness, the hallway light a shining swath under the door, my breathing resumed.

Lying there, body clenched, I prayed. “ Please. Make it go away. I'll do whatever you want, whatever it takes. Just make his headache go away. Don't let him come back. I won't sneak any more books, I won't steal any more food. I won’t do anything bad. Anything. I'll stay right here and pray.”

I fell asleep that way. Fervent, sweaty, desperate. The next day, he said, “It took half an hour for my headache to even start going away. I almost went back for a visit, to motivate you, but God stopped me. He told me of your dedication, your promises, and his belief in you. Don't let him down, Leigh, and don't let me down.”  The father I remember, before the guru father, wanted me fearless.  He wanted me fearless until he wanted me filled with fear.  

In the fourth grade at Webb Elementary my anger defined me.  Imagine me kicking a boy in the crotch, throwing chairs and screaming at my fourth grade teacher “I hate my father!  I hate my father!” My aloneness defined me. Think of me in my smelly Silver Creek Drive closet, praying, begging, praying, begging god to help me be good. Eventually my love of books both defined and saved me.  A trip to the school library was part of my daily routine, I dropped off a few, picked up a few and did my best to stock up for long weekends. Aside from the library, art class was my favorite place to be. Think of my art teacher sending supplies home with me, until my parents accuse me of stealing.  Just simple things like paper, glue and glitter.  All things I could hide away in my desks.  

On the 15th of January 1982, with help from my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Hildebrand, I wrote and mailed a letter to my grandmother, also a teacher.

Dear Granny,

I feel I should write this letter. I've been having this problem about two or three years. I've been warned before never to tell you. But I think it's a good thing to do because... my parents... pull my hair, spank me with a belt (that leaves me black and blue), make me stay in my room and I can't go outside. I'm really tired of it and I'm asking your help. Please!

Love, Leigh.

If you want to ask my teacher about this, here is her name and home phone number, Mrs. Hildebrand's home phone number is 451-4008. School number 452-4708.

Don't tell or call my parents or they will get real mad! Please!.

My parents open my letters that I get. So if you need to write to me or call me, here is the school address and phone number. 452-4708. Webb Elementary School, 601 East St. Johns Austin, Texas 78752.

January 17, 1982

Dearest Leigh,

I was very surprised to get your letter.  I was also very distressed.  You know that I love you very, very much, and I am sure that your parents love you very much, too.  After all, you are an exceedingly lovable kid!

Sometimes parents (& grannies, too) get extra uptight when things don’t go well.  Kids get uptight, too.  Right? I don’t know what has happened to cause all this unhappiness, but I am very sure that if we (we being you, your parents, me, and maybe Shay and Chad), if we could all talk about it together, really talk, saying all the good things as well as the bad things, that we could work it out.;  It would take time. It took time to get all the misunderstandings. So it would take time, a long time, to get the understandings too.  You also have a very fine teacher, a counselor, and a social worker that could help us.  

I won’t say anything to your parents until you want me to, but I don’t see how I can help if I don’t talk to them.  Will you think about this, please? Let me know what you think.  

I’ll probably see you this weekend.  XX is having a birthday party and I know xx was going to call your parents to see if you could go.  It will be at (Yuk!) McDonalds because that’s what XX wanted.  Remember how much you and XX liked McDonalds when you were five years old? Also XX and XX wanted to spend the night with me after the party and I hope you can, too.  I told XX to tell your parents, when she called to invite you, that I would be glad to go get you and take you to the party in Georgetown if they wanted me to.  She was also going to tell them that XX and XX were going to say with me Saturday night and ask if you could stay too.  I’ll call Tues. or Wed. for an answer.  

Leigh, be as cooperative as possible at home.  Try to stay happy, because that helps others be happy too.  

I love you very much and I know that with four intelligent and loving people (that’s you, your dad, your mother and your granny), we can figure out what things have caused this trouble and how to cure it.  

So hang loose, sweetie!  You are always in my prayers,
Much love,

Granny saved these letters, the letters that brought a social worker to my school with a camera. The letter that irrevocably changed my life. In pencil and precise cursive on a sheet of lined, loose-leaf paper I wrote that letter, never expecting that I would spend nine years ‘growing up’ in foster care.  

It was a vaguely familiar adult that interrupted our fourth grade class to whisper in Mrs. Basey's ear; someone from the office. Mrs. Basey looked over at me, nodded and motioned me to the door. Not during reading, I thought while closing Serendipity, our text. I pushed my chair back from the desk.

Eyes were split between me and Mrs. Basey, who said “Gather your things, you have a visitor in the office.” I gathered and followed. The woman led me on the familiar walk, past the library doors and glass display cases. My eyes trailed along the walls, noting the painted-over cinder-block construction, the green and blue bathroom doors, and the white ceramic fountain- shiny but unused because it dispensed nothing  but tepid water. If it was Norma or Daddy, they would just tell me, right?

I didn't know the woman waiting for me in the office. Relief. She was petite, with dark wavy hair, bangs and a tightness around her eyes.

“Latricia Keys” she said, holding out her hand for a shake. “You must be Leigh. I'm from the Texas Department of Human Resources and I'm here to talk with you.”  

Latricia led me into a room with a rectangular meeting table and some wooden chairs. We sat down. On the table, Patricia had a folder, pad of paper, pen and camera; a low-budget Polaroid camera . She picked up the camera, set it back down and asked
“Do you understand why I want to talk to you?”
“No.” I said.
“Do you remember writing a letter to your Grandmother?”
I must have turned some waxy shade of green.
“Leigh, there are people who are very worried about you, including me and your grandmother. If it's not safe for you at home, you need to be somewhere else.”
“Where?” I asked.
“First we have to talk about why you wrote that letter, what's happening at home. Can you do that with me today?”
Mouth dry, I nodded yes.
“Why were you absent last week, Leigh?”
“The bathroom.”
“The bathroom.”
“You were in the bathroom for a week?”
“My bedroom too.”
“Why were you in the bathroom?”
“I had to stay in the bathtub, a lot. To make the marks go away.”
“The bruises?”
“Yes. Norma would come in to check on me and put more hot water in the tub”
“Who is Norma?”
“My step-mom.”
“Did she give you the bruises?”
“No, it was Daddy. He called me from upstairs because I was angry.
“How can your parents tell you’re angry?”
“They meditate and God tells them I’m angry.”
“So, tell me how you got those bruises.”
Tell how he stares at me while unbuckling his belt, daring me to look away as he inches it off his waist and snaps it? How his left hand holds my left arm, demanding stillness? How he hits me, and my body reacts with a scream and a leap, almost levitating, then dropping back down. Tell how we move in a noisy, uneven circle around the room, like I’m to be broken with a lead and whip, round and round?
“Leigh, how did you get the bruises?”
“He hits me with a doubled-over belt”
“How often does he hit you?”
“Whenever I get mad.”
“Do you get mad a lot?”
“It just depends.”
“Do you still have bruises on your body right now?”
“May I see them?
“You mean, take off my clothes?”
“Leigh, I need to take some pictures of your bruises. I'm sorry, but I need them so I can protect you, help make you safe.”

Latricia used the camera, the pad of paper and the pen to document my bruises, as gently as bruises can be documented in the unyielding, fluorescent glare. I felt so naked. Wait, I was naked. And cold. And sick to my stomach. Why did I write that letter to Granny?

The flash and clack of a Polaroid camera captured images of my nine year old self, stripped of clothes, in an empty meeting room.  I submitted to the documentation, my posture a mix of pride and shame.  Each flash of the camera, each picture laid out was a step in the direction of Granny.   I knew it wouldn't be as easy as the Boxcar Children made it look.  They had a boxcar, and a town dump, and each other.  There were days I’d beg my father to let me live under a bridge, though it was really a highway underpass.  I would bargain that dropping off supplies for PB&Js every few weeks would be cheaper and less painful, for us all.  That was my plan.  To live under a bridge.  After all, my mother had lived in a tree.  And when you live in trees, or under bridges you don't have to do things like take baths or stop reading.  But I wasn’t living in a mosquito net under a bridge, I was waiting as the noise and bustle of Webb Elementary’s after school rush died down. Latricia made me stay with her even as the last buses pulled away from the curb.
“Don't worry, she said, I'll give you a ride home”.
“If I'm late, I'll be in trouble,” I said.
“Leigh, your Dad can't hurt you anymore”.
Yeah right.  He'll meditate if I'm late.

Next I’m standing on the front porch of the  house on Silver Creek Drive. The social worker, Ms. Keys,  is knocking on the front door. For me there is no sound, so I saw the knocking, but couldn’t hear it. Thankfully only Daddy was home.  His mouth moved, as he responded to the social worker. Then his eyes shift and lock onto mine, and I don’t need to hear. After collecting a blur of things we come back out.  Still no sound.  And by now, there is no color. The bags are placed in the trunk of Latricia’s white car.  I’m loaded into the front seat.  I feel the vibration and force of the door slamming, the pressure of the seat belt.  

I turned and looked back as we drove away, my father standing on the front lawn.  He knew and I knew that this leave-taking was my own fault.  But what else can evil do? He became smaller and smaller, like the figures I used to watch all tiny and distorted through his glasses on Riverside Drive. A searing heat built in my stomach and chest.  I sobbed to the sound of the social worker telling me that "Crying is good.  If you weren't crying, I would really be worried.  If you weren't crying, something would really be wrong."  And so, I cried,  but still, things were really wrong.   
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